When I lectured to groups, I’ld begin by asking my participants to close their eyes and attempt to recall a moment from their earlier lives. What always emerged, without any prompts, concerned a birthday, a family gathering, a funeral, an event detailed with sense experiences, a visual- perhaps of a glowing candlelit cake, the sound- of sweet laughter or the rub of a cheek against their own. I could see the faces of people transported, actually reliving those moments.We would discuss that it was impossible to remember every single day of a life lived, but those heightened by extreme happiness or sadness did in deed reside in our heads, available for easy recall.
When I taught high school previously, I also posed questions to my students,”How are you similar or different to your ancestors.” It was a postcolonial literature class and I was teaching books from Africa, India and the South America: the point being to bridge worlds and diversity, reminding the classes that we all came from somewhere and our own progenitors were once immigrants too. Moving from themselves through personal anecdotes to first person narratives by authors to indigenous cultures and novels gently lead them into a process that erased the demarcations of me and them. But once again, it was asking them to search in their heads for that special shared time with a loved one.
Often I used Margaret Laurence’s personal essays in Africa, a middle class Canadian herself, moving on to Rohinton Mistry or China Achebe or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In deed, One Hundred Years of Solitude is so full of magic, surreal situations of exaggerations and fantasy to delight and confound even Harry Potter fans. There are people in the book who can fly, others who literally shrink in old age, suggestive of a fairytale but based in actual horrendous events, reminding the reader that truth is often stranger than fiction.
To my initial prompt, student Rebecca had written about a yearly visit to her grandma in Germany who had grown up in wartime, a grandma who penny pinched, reused, recycled. Rebecca was not enamoured of the summers because she felt her Oma stingy. In a moment of revelation, the granddaughter realized that in her own eco saving moments, she too had disparaged the waste of disposables and had emulated her grandma’s stance of thriftiness, even organizing recycling groups. There were other stories that connected personality traits and role models, shuffling bubies who had lived in Kensington and kept fish fresh in their bathtubs until it was time for dinner. And with a self conscious guffaw and some amazement, the students comprehended that they might have inherited more than their names from their progenitors.
But what interested me was the moment, the flash, the epiphany and why certain memories had been retrievable while others languished with the business of daily routines. Of course, I intuited the memorable event was flagged by the emotion surrounding it, but true enough, our lives are filled with so many experiences conceived in or surrounded with joy, delight, anger or distress, times we wish we could hold on to, renewing them when we need comfort, or resurrecting them to better understand ourselves. Why did certain moments rise to the surface of consciousness , while others were lost deep in our heads?
Last night while attempting to sleep , I combed through my own life, searching for those episodes that still continue to haunt me. For the most part, there were single flashes: a grade one teacher who wore shiny brown oxfords along with a look of disdain for me, and a class in which unable to cut out leaves for the construction of leaf people, the boy who sat in the seat ahead turned with a soft smile to surreptitiously perform the act. And I in present time, re- experienced the relief of not enduring my teacher’s scorn and my gratitude towards him. But why had this small event of maybe 2-3 minutes persists and, I, still able to feel the embarrassment and relief of maybe 60 years ago?
Rummaging through my head again, I recalled a Halloween, married with a three year old, me intent on creating a big bird mask for her, spending days with papier mache, the result looking a bit like big bird on crack for the features although were distorted. When she saw it, she loved it: the essence of Big Bird obvious to her. However on the walkabout that dark night, other children spying macabre eyes too big, an oversized mouth, a lolling tongue, festooned with shaggy ocher bits of floating feathers of their favourite character, she began to shriek and cry out. My poor daughter, not understanding that she herself was NOT the cause of alarm, fused momentarily with her mask and terrified, refused to go out on all subsequent Halloweens for years. I can relive this event in full as if it were occurring before my eyes even today.
But not just the moments of extreme emotion rise in my memory, pictures of festivities such as backyard parties with friends interacting at tables set with golden decorations, lavish drooping white flowers, glittering glasses of wine, soft music and the happiness of celebrations marking transitions. Were there other scenarios that have not lodged, found a niche, a dark corner in my brain, but not eclipsed or overcrowded by other similar moments? Surely so.
As I get older and want to piece together what has contributed to being me, I am frustrated at not being able to locate other small gems that might provide insight. Hardened like tiny crystals, so many other experiences do not come forward, even in whiffs of dreams. What I have is a broad outline perhaps that is composed of the basic person I am: the art, the books, the teacher, the mother, the planner of events that afforded me pleasure, the broad strokes of a life. It’s a bit like Sisyphus climbing the rock over and over again, except I wish I had a small awl or hammer to claw away at the rock in hope of dislodging some fragment forgotten.